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Pioneering in sustainability reporting in
Experiences of a Belgian business faculty
Talia Stough - KU Leuven, Faculty of Economics and Business,
Kim Ceulemans - University of Victoria, Centre for Social and
Sustainable Innovation, Canada
Sustainability monitoring and reporting
• Need for regular monitoring and evaluation of the progress
made in implementing education for sustainable
development (ESD) practices (UNESCO 2014).
• Sustainability reporting (SR) has been identified as one of
the elements needed to foster progress on SD integration
in higher education institutions (HEIs) (Lozano et al.
Sustainability reporting (SR) in HEIs
• SR is a voluntary activity aimed at communication of, and
accountability on, SD impacts towards stakeholders and at
the assessment and improvement of the organizations' SD
performance (Adams and Frost 2008. Daub 2007. Joseph
• Sustainability reporting is mainly a corporate activity
o Over last ten years some pioneering higher education
institutions have started SR (Alonso-Almeida et al.
2015; Ceulemans et al. 2015a).
SR in HEIs
• HEIs mainly engage in SR for reasons of (Ceulemans et
o Increasing transparency
o facilitating SD assessment
o stakeholder engagement
o change for SD
o improving their reputation)
• Also (but less importantly):
o improving HEIs’ ranking
o facilitating external benchmarking
o providing evidence for accreditation bodies
Global Reporting Initiative
• The Global Reporting Initiative’s (GRI) Guidelines most
widely used reporting framework
o conceived through broad and ongoing stakeholder
• No sector-specific guidance for HEIs (i.e. educational and
• 32,438 sustainability reports in GRI Disclosure Database in
March, 2016 (covering publication years from 2000 to early
2016), 234 sustainability reports were published by 99
HEI assessment tools
• HEIs have also been assessing their SD activities with
HEI-specific assessment tools (for example):
o Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System
o The Campus Sustainability Assessment Framework
o Auditing Instrument for Sustainability in Higher
State of SR in HEIs
• Low level of SR by HEIs (in terms of quantity and quality of
• Strong focus on environmental themes
• Europe and North America were the leading continents in
adopting the GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines in
• HEIs were in the early adopter stage in terms of practicing
(Alonso-Almeida et al., 2015.; Fonseca et al., 2011; Lozano,
State of Sustainability Assessment in HEIs
• Difficult to design appropriate instruments for monitoring
and analyzing the SD performance of HEIs due to the lack
of reviews of current SD assessment tools
• Failure of certain tools to assess HEIs’ core activities or to
cover SD integration holistically
Gap in literature
• Lack of exchange of information on the topic in the higher
education sector and a lack of in-depth guidance on how to
organize the sustainability reporting process in
organizations as complex and distinctly organized as HEIs
(Lozano et al., 2013a)
• Process of SR has not been studied in depth in the
literature as compared to a focus on the outputs of SR
• Addresses gap in literature on topic of SR in HEIs
• Describe and analyze the sustainability reporting process
during the preparation of four consecutive sustainability
reports (published in 2011 - 2014) for a Belgian university,
led by the business faculty’s sustainability office
• Identify main challenges and opportunities of SR in HEIs
• Offer analytical insights through the use of action research
• 2011 Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel (HUB) became first
Belgian HEI with a GRI sustainability report
o 7000 students; 900 staff members
o SR lead by business faculty
o Decision to report came from sustainability assessment
(AISHE) feedback: communication about sustainability
initiatives needed to be strengthened
• 2013 HUB academic departments merged with KU Leuven
Data Collection Phase
• Where to begin?
• The GRI guidelines were used to guide the data collection
and analysis process and to provide indicators to disclose
the HEI’s main environmental, social, and financial impacts
• Reconnaissance: meet with central departments (logistics,
human resources, student services, financial, etc.)
o What data already monitored and available?
• Review internal documents relevant to indicators (i.e., HR
policies, the annual reports, etc.)
• Already having a printed report made it easier to
communicate with colleagues about how the data will be
used and how themes tie into the umbrella term of
• Already know which persons/departments in the
organization maintain what data; people know how
information you want and how it will be used (streamlined
data collection phase)
• Some data remains a challenge to collect year after year
o data sets unique to the GRI indicators that had to be
generated for the sole purpose of SR (i.e., compilation
of the workforce organized by category, age, gender,
• Stakeholder engagement activities only meaningful if
university knows what they wish to gain from engagement
• Annual online survey that sought to gain insight into the
perception of internal stakeholders (students and
o how well SD integrated in activities (education,
research, outreach, and operations)
• Need for more communication?
• What topics are material?
• External stakeholder roundtable
Student involvement in SR
• In-class stakeholder engagement processes:
o work in small groups using the GRI indicators as a
framework to rate the materiality of different issues
• Co-authorship of report
o Masters students of Environment, Health and Safety
Management contributed to sections of report (data
collection, stakeholder engagement, and writing initial
Difficulties of SR in HEIs
• Lack of time and resources to engage in the reporting
process is a major challenge (Ceulemans et al. 2015a.
Lozano et al. 2013a)
• Organization of HEIs
o Lack of cross-coordination between academic and
operational and among operational departments
o High level of autonomy of different groups
• “Sustainability” conceptualized as environmental topics
• Lack of culture of transparency for (Belgian) HEIs.
• Scope setting
• GRI does not include HEI-specific indicators (i.e.,
Opportunities of SR in HEIs
• Increase communication
o governmental bodies, accreditation bodies, business
partners, and other academic institutions
• Increase collaboration and performance
o Cross-collaboration between academic and operational
o Increase stakeholders’ understanding and willingness to
• SR as a learning tool (university as a “living laboratory”)
o students are involved in the sustainability process of the
o simultaneously gain hands-on knowledge that can be
applied later in their careers
Evolution of Reporting
•First Belgian higher
with a GRI report
Report (joint Odisee
and KU Leuven
Reports can be found here:
• AASHE (2016a). “STARS, a program of AASHE”. AASHE, https://stars.aashe.org (Last accessed 2/18/2016).
• Adams C. and Frost G. (2008). “Integrating sustainability reporting into management practices”. Accounting Forum, 32, 288-302.
• Alonso-Almeida M. M., Marimon F., Casani F. and Rodriguez-Pomeda J. (2015). “Diffusion of sustainability reporting in
universities: current situation and future perspectives”. Journal of Cleaner Production, 106, 144–154.
• Ceulemans K., Lozano R. and Alonso-Almeida M. (2015a). “Sustainability Reporting in Higher Education: Interconnecting the
Reporting Process and Organisational Change Management for Sustainability”. Sustainability, 7, 8881–8903.
• Ceulemans K., Molderez I. and Van Liedekerke L. (2015b). “Sustainability Reporting in Higher Education: A Comprehensive
Review of the Recent Literature and Paths for Further Research”. Journal of Cleaner Production, 106, 127–143.
• Cole L. (2003). Assessing sustainability on Canadian University campuses: development of a campus sustainability assessment
framework. Royal Roads University, Victoria, Canada.
• Daub C.-H. (2007). “Assessing the quality of sustainability reporting: an alternative methodological approach”. Journal of
Cleaner Production, 15, 1, 75–85.
• Fonseca A., Macdonald A., Dandy E. and Valenti P. (2011). “The state of sustainability reporting at Canadian universities”.
International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 12, 1, 22-40.
• Joseph G. (2012). “Ambiguous but tethered: an accounting basis for sustainability reporting”. Critical Perspectives on
Accounting, 23, 2, 93-106.
• Lozano R. (2011). “The state of sustainability reporting in universities”. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher
Education, 12, 1, 67–78.
• Lozano R., Llobet J. and Tideswell G. (2013a). “The process of assessing and reporting sustainability at universities: Preparing
the report of the University of Leeds”. Revista Internacional de Sostenibilidad, Tecnologia y Humanismo, 8, 85-113.
• Lozano R., Lukman R., Lozano F.J., Huisingh D. and Lambrechts W. (2013b). “Declarations for sustainability in higher
education: becoming better leaders, through addressing the university system”. Journal of Cleaner Production, 48, 10–19.
• Roorda N. (2002). “Assessment and policy development of sustainability in higher education with AISHE” in Leal Filho W. (ed.).
Teaching sustainability at universities: Towards curriculum greening, environmental education, communication and sustainability.
Peter Lang Scientific Publishers, Frankfurt, Germany.
• UNESCO (2014). UNESCO Roadmap for Implementing the Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable
Development. UNESCO, Paris.